Swing from ape to tape in a different kind of jungle

May 8, 1998

A Glasgow university audiovisual unit has developed services to ensure that education is fit for an interactive future, Claire Neesham reports

Gorillas, academics and students" may not be the obvious title for the inaugural lecture of someone about to take over an audiovisual services department. But when he became director of the University of Strathclyde's Audio Visual Media Services (AVMS) in 1991, Alan Goodall saw parallels between the requirements of his new job and his previous position as a primatologist working with mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Zaire.

He worked with the late Dian Fossey, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the film Gorillas in the Mist. While Fossey concentrated her efforts on protecting the gorillas from poachers, Goodall took a wider view of the problems including environmental issues and the needs of the people living in the area.

He tried to bring this broad view or systems approach to Strathclyde, where the need to adapt to the changing educational environment is something he emphasises to his media colleagues and to academics who use their service. He is proud of the creative team, who offer a broad range of services from photography though print and CD-Rom design to TV and film production, and confident that they have the required skills and understanding of their environment to survive.

Such understanding and adaptability is going to be vital for all university departments in the next few years, says Goodall. He points to the changes that are predicted in the university's Strategic Plan 1997-2001 - a glossy brochure designed and produced by the graphics and photography group. Students who pay fees are going to expect more from their courses, there will be increased demand for short courses as part of the move towards lifelong learning, and distance learning will gain importance. Goodall sees a role for his team in satisfying the demands that will arise from these predicted changes.

The newly-chartered University of Strathclyde formed an audiovisual services department in 1965. In the early days the unit recorded televised lectures that were replayed to students. As time passed and technology progressed it took on new roles: producing videos, managing the technical requirements of the teaching rooms, undertaking desktop publishing projects, and most recently moving into interactive media design. AVMS has been producing CD-Roms for about six years. It is now working on the design of the university web site.

"More than 90 per cent of the work that AVMS undertakes is for the university, and 70 per cent of this work is for teaching purposes," Goodall explains. The work for academics varies greatly. A recently opened bureau service is useful for lecturers who create presentation material on their own desktop computers. The bureau staff can print out hard copy up to A0 size, create overhead projector acetates and 35mm slides. They scan documents and pictures, delivering the files on a disk or sending them to the lecturer over the network.

Many of the university's academic staff also use AVMS's design, photographic and production services. Graphics and photography manager Rosanne Strachan highlighted some of the projects that her team of designers has undertaken recently. These ranged from producing high quality exhibition catalogues for the University's Collins Gallery, through the production of posters for conferences, exhibitions and recruitment drives, to developing an electronic course guide for international students taking MBAs at Strathclyde Business School. The CD-Rom guide is linked to web pages where the latest information is posted.

Strachan says that she likes to spread the work around the designers. Sometimes they work on desktop publishing projects, and other times they create the look and feel for an interactive product. All the designers work on Macintosh computers. They have experience of using a wide range of packages including Pagemaker, Photoshop, and Acrobat (all from Adobe) for interactive projects. In addition the design department uses Macromedia Director for its work on video graphics and animations.

Over the past few years senior producer Derek Copland and his production team have won acclaim, for their video work. AVMS recently won an International Visual Communication Association Gold award for a recruitment video. Another notable success was a video production called The Thief Within, which highlighted how the varnish on museum display cases may harm the enclosed exhibits. It is used for reference in museums and conservation centres around the world. Some of AVMS's CD-Roms are also causing excitement. One example is an interactive introduction to The Analysis of Drugs of Abuse, which introduces chemistry students to tests for a variety of drugs. Goodall says that the chemistry department is delighted with this interactive teaching aid. Students can see a demonstration of the tests they are expected to do as part of their laboratory practice, and they can even have a "dry run" at the experiment following on-screen instructions. When the students go into the lab they are aware of the equipment, the reagents and any hazards. Staff spend less time on demonstrations.

Interactive projects such as this do, however, require that the academic in charge of the course invests time in the development of the production. Although there are still some lecturers who think that good quality interactive material appears like Scotch mist from the AVMS production facilities, Goodall says that many staff are beginning to realise the benefits of working closely with AVMS on this kind of project. He cites the CD-Rom that the unit is producing for the Scottish Hotel School.

Like the chemistry production, this includes demonstrations using graphics and video. It provides 12 menus with detailed photographs illustrating how the food should be placed on the plate, the pronunciation of the dishes' names and suitable accompaniments. There are also pages on wines accompanied by a video providing background on the vineyard, when to offer the wine and how to pronounce the name. Tea and its history are given similar treatment.

Cailein Gillespie, a lecturer at the Scottish Hotel School worked closely with AVMS designer Caroline Moodie. As in the case of the chemistry production, Gillespie believes that the CD-Rom will help the school reduce the resources it needs to invest in demonstrations. He hopes that Strathclyde may be able to sell the CD to other schools, as well as some of the larger hotel chains that run in-house training.

Such predictions fit with Goodall's vision of the future of higher education. He mentions the predicted growth in lifelong learning, and argues that interactive learning tools will help meet increasing student demands as numbers in higher education grow and the expectations of the students increase.

Since not all universities will have the facilities to produce such resources, he predicts greater collaboration between universities. He acknowledges that some universities may see the selling of an interactive teaching aid that they helped create as a loss of competitive advantage. But he says that in his eyes the sharing of materials in this way is no different from the use of a textbook which may have been written by an academic at a rival British institution or abroad.

Goodall says that over the next few years the department may have to start looking for more commercial work. "We cost the university a lot of money," he says, adding that all but three of his 33 staff are funded directly from the university.

But even if AVMS takes a more commercial route in the future, Goodall intends to maintain the organisation's focus on education. In particular he is keen to help the university's academic staff ensure that they are fit to survive the next century. You do not have to be a gorilla-watcher to know that it's a jungle out there.

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